As I understand it, the main problem with the fighting game genre is that the fiercely loyal and stalwart community behind it is very set in their ways - they know what they like and they aren't about to welcome newcomers to the party without good reason.
So from the get go, Skullgirls - the 2D all-female fighting game from Reverge Labs recently released on XBLA - has an uphill battle against it, but being created by a tournament-level fighting game enthusiast like Mike Zaimont has to count for something, right?
Well, firstly it's very easy to spot that Skullgirls was created with the input of a fighting game enthusiast, there are several aspects which are borrowed from other franchises, from Capcom vs. SNK's ability to choose fighting teams comprised of slightly weaker versions of the full combatants for example is a trait that is rarely copied in fighting games.
It's also very apparent that this game has been designed to be as friendly as possible to the player, offering possibly the most superb tutorial section I have ever encountered in a fighting game - if you have ever played games such as the recent Street Fighter games then all of the different button commands and combos can make your head spin but Skullgirls has an easy-to-follow step by step tutorial that appears in plain English.
Interestingly, given the obvious quality of the tutorial in Skullgirls, Reverge Labs have omitted any form of in-game move list - a staple of the genre - which means you have to visit the games website and downloads a PDF with the moves list on, this feels very much like an oversight by Reverge - I'm not certain what the official decision was for this but it feels like one of the 'cardinal rules' of fighting games may have been broken here.
The game itself is, from my opinion (being a relative outsider in the fighting genre) a very well composed collection of different aspects from other successful fighting games. Each of the female characters handles slightly differently - from the heavy (but slightly sluggish) hitters to the more nimble (but slightly frail) fighters you will eventually find your favourite from the nine available but with somewhat indistinguishable features between the characters its essentially like trying to pick the best poker from the fireplace to bludgeon someone with - there may be some minor differences between them but they'll all do the same job. Unfortunately with there only being nine characters on the roster this choice becomes less time consuming and somehow less enjoyable than other fighting games.
Presented in a mixture of Art Deco, Golden Age of Hollywood and the art stylings of Matt Dixon its easy to think that Skullgirls has been created purely for the fans of titillation and tease.
With previous fighting games such as Super Smash Bros and Darkstalkers offering an equal amount of underwear flashing and gratuitous cleavage respectively this is not a new aspect to the genre. Coupling this with the swing jazz brings a styling similar to that popularized by Bioshock. You can imagine a room full of mobsters all playing texas hold em with their molls in skimpy dresses to appear in the next cutscene.
Whilst the character design does not cause me any offence, neither do I find it particularly necessary to have an all girl roster who are essentially sharing enough fabric to fully cloth half of them other than to satisfy an artistic need by the developers. Regardless after mealy minutes of gameplay the aesthetic almost vanishes and you are solely concentrating on you pre-memorized move set (or flailing on the buttons, like me)
Gameplay wise, Skullgirls handles very well - the movements come together in nice fluid motions, the animations are fast and frantic whilst in the thick of fighting but not so much so that you would lose your character in the chaos. Even playing online (which is powered by GGPO) is largely lag free. The AI (even on it's lowest difficulty setting) is sometimes brutally unforgiving with your mistakes and can take a few attempts to get used to.
I think that Skullgirls has the potential to become one of the chosen games at fighting game tournaments in the future, but only if Reverge Labs are willing to put in the time and effort needed to support it like a fully boxed release, adding an in-game list of character moves and additional characters are the first steps to do this.